By David Johnston
The pared-down, $175-million version of a new downtown ball park will retain many of the interior features first proposed in 1997 for a more costly project, but it won't have as elaborate an exterior facade, an Expos executive said yesterday.
Roger Samson, who joined the Expos last week as a special adviser, said in an interview that the ornate, red-brick exterior proposed in the $250 million original design will have to give way to a simpler, no-frills facade.
Samson added that members of the Expos ownership consortium now hope to finance the stadium's construction solely through a $100-million government-supported loan and $75 million raised from fans through a revamped seat-license-sale program.
Samson, a former vice-president of Sico Inc., the paint company, began work last week as special adviser to the group of dissident owners trying to buy out managing partner Claude Brochu and relaunch the stadium project. However, he is being paid by the Expos, out of a "survival" budget that the club has set aside. His main task is to devise a new seat-license program.
Samson, who is working out of the Expos' downtown offices in Windsor Station, said the three construction proposals the dissident owners have received from three local companies have three things in common with Brochu's original proposal:
He said Brochu's original plan for a simple, umbrella-like convertible roof has been scrapped, and he couldn't say whether the idea of heated stands will be retained.
Brochu's original proposal called for a red-brick exterior with ornamental turrets and a domed, triple-deck gazebo behind centre field.
Samson said the three companies that have submitted bids have asked that their designs be kept confidential. But he said the new stadium exterior "wouldn't necessarily be brick."
He also revealed that major league baseball is insisting that the stadium face north, opening on to the downtown skyline. Baseball simply has a rule, he said, saying all new stadiums must face north in order to minimize the amount of sunlight that can interfere with the vision of players, particularly batters and infielders.
The northerly configuration will leave any downtown stadium on the proposed site two blocks south of the Molson Centre relatively shady inside the stadium bowl, as well as vulnerable to northeasterly winds that tend to blow in some days from the Laurentians to Montreal.
On March 24, the owners group trying to buy out Brochu, led by club chairman Jacques Menard, got some good news when the Quebec government pledged to carry $7 million or $8 million in annual debt-servicing costs for a new stadium. This support, said Finance Minister Bernard Landry, will enable the group to go out and get a $100-million loan.
At the time of the government announcement, Landry said finance-department "technicians" would be meeting with Menard's group over the following 10 days to work out the fine print of the loan-support deal. Yesterday, Andree Corrriveau, an aide to Landry, said the fine print hasn't been completed, and won't be until Menard's group informs the ministry it has found a lender willing to lend it $100 million.
Last week, La Presse reported the dissident owners had found a financial institution willing to lend them the $100 million. But the owners haven't told the ministry they have a lender in place, said Corriveau.
Landry said March 24 that one conditon he would insist on in negotiations with Menard's group is that the government's liability for any loan would disappear if the Expos were to leave Montreal. Major-league baseball has refused to comment in recent weeks on what it thinks of recent efforts by Menard's group.
"All I can tell you is we're still in the process of reviewing the situation and we hope it will be resolved soon," Richard Levin, a major-league baseball official, said yesterday. Levin refused to comment on any deadlines the club might be facing. It has frequently been reported that the club was facing a deadline of late May, when major league baseball draws up its 2000 schedule, or July 1, when the schedule has to be submitted to the players' association for approval.
Last Thursday, the Expos renewed for another three months a purchase option on the tract of land where they want to build a new stadium. The land is owned by the Canada Lands Co., a Crown corporation.
Gordon McIvor, vice-president of Canada Lands, said the Expos appear to want to lease the land rather than buy it. He said federal law prevents the CLC from selling the land for less than its market value of $16 million to $18 million.
"But we can be flexible on the terms of payment (even on leases), so that they wouldn't have to pay up front," said McIvor.
Samson said he hasn't designed a new seat-license-sales plan yet, so he can't say how it might differ from Brochu's original sales drive that targeted the corporate community. He said he has reviewed details of the Brochu plan and, in his opinion, it was a lot better than many people give Brochu credit for. The plan raised $35 million in pledges, $40 million short of what Samson said his goal will be. "I think $75 million is the number we're looking at," he said.
Persuading major-league baseball that a viable stadium can be built for $175 million hasn't been easy for Menard's group, acknowledged Samson.
A chronology of recent developments in the Expos' downtown stadium saga: Feb 18: Dissident owners led by Expos chairman Jacques Menard tell a Montreal press conference they have new investors willing to put up $125 million to help save the Expos, buy out managing partner Claude Brochu and relaunch the stalled downtown stadium project. They also confirm they have received three sealed bids from local engineering firms for a new stadium design that would cost $175 million, or $75 million less that the original proposal unveiled by Brochu in June of 1997. Menard identifies the new lead investor as Jeffrey Loria of New York City, saying Loria, a multimillionaire art dealer, is ready to invest $50 million U.S., or $73 million Canadian at the current exchange rate. He says another eight to 10 local investors are prepared to put up $40 million to $55 million. The only confirmed investor is Loblaws, Cos. Ltd., but Quebecor Inc. and the Jean Coutu Group are rumoured to be interested.
March 3: At a press conference in Jupiter Fla., Brochu says he'll only agree to a $15-million buyout deal if two conditions are met. First, Menard's group must succeed in getting financing for a new downtown stadium. Second, any new ownership consortium must formally commit to keeping the Expos in Montreal for at least 20 years.
March 24: At a press conference in Quebec City, Finance Minister Bernard Landry says the Quebec government is willing to carry $7 million to $8 million in debt financing for a new stadium, an amount he says would allow the Expos to go out and borrow $100 million of the $75 million they need. Menard, at the same press conference, says he has pledges from new investors for $100 million - $25 million less than he announced Feb. 18 - and says his goal is $120 million.
He says $25 million will be needed to buy out Brochu "and other shareholders who might want to leave." The other shareholders are Aramark Canada Ltd., formerly Versa Services Ltd., and M&S Sports, both of which own 7.2-per-cent shares. (Under major-league-baseball rules, Aramark had to put its interest in the Expos up for sale in 1995, following the purchase by its U.S. parent owner of a substantial piece of the Boston Red Sox. Baseball prohibits anyone from owning shares in more than one club. But Aramark Canada hasn't been able to find a buyer. Avie Bennett, president of McCelland & Stewart publishing house, has since decided M&S Sports will remain a part-owner of the Expos.) Menard says most of the money raised from the new investors will go not toward stadium construction but instead to paying down the club's debt (confidential, though published reports have pegged it anywhere between $40 million and $70 million) and covering anticipated operating deficits until the Expos move into a new facility.
April 13: Two senior executives from major-league baseball meet in Montreal with Menard's group to study its updated plans for a new stadium and new ownership configuration. Paul Beeston, baseball's chief operating officer, and Robert DuPuy, chief legal officer, meet with six members of the owners group at the Quebec Federation of Labour Solidarity Fund offices on Cremazie Blvd.
May 3: Roger Samson, a former vice-president of Sico Inc., the paint company, and former general manager of the defunct Montreal Manic soccer club, is appointed special adviser to the ownership consortium. His main job is to head up a new seat-license-sale program.
May 5: Another meeting involving major-league baseball and the ownership consortium is held in Montreal. This meeting is also attended by a senior architect of HOK Sports Facilities Group of Kansas City, a firm that has had a hand in the design of most new ball parks this decade, and by an independent consultant agreed upon by baseball and the dissident Expos owners.
May 6: The Expos renew for another three months their purchase option on the tract of land two blocks south of the Molson Centre where they want to build their new ball park. The land is owned by the federal government through a crown corporation, the Canada Lands Company. The nearly vacant lot, bounded by St. Jacques, Mountain, Notre Dame and Peel Sts., is the former site of the old Bonaventure rail yard.
May 11: Samson says the ownership group trying to buy out Brochu hopes to finance the new stadium with the $100 million government-supported loan and $75 million in revenues from seat licences. Brochu's orginal seat-license plan raised an initial $42 million in pledges, but only $35 million was subsequently reconfirmed in follow-up calls.